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Pocketful of Tag

By Mike Wilcynski
MT, NV, Mule Deer, Elk

My family and I were on vacation in Australia when the Montana deer and elk results were published mid-April. I had a good feeling this was going to be my year, and after cashing in 15 points, my dream became a reality. I would be hunting southeast Montana for a bull elk. The following month, my hunting partner and I were pleasantly surprised to learn we had drawn archery mule deer tags in central Nevada. With two great tags in my pocket, there was a lot to look forward to.

We spent the next couple months researching Nevada with the help of the local biologist, Huntin’ Fool members who had previously hunted the area, and studying maps. We focused on a large wilderness area in the middle of the unit. With limited time and our desire to ensure we had fresh legs for the length of the hunt, we hired Paul Strasdin to pack us into the heart of the plateau.

We arrived at the trailhead at around midnight on August 20th and were greeted by Paul and his wrangler, Garrett. After introductions, we managed to grab a couple hours of sleep. The following morning, Paul loaded our gear into the panniers and we rode in roughly five miles to a clump of aspen trees at roughly 10,200 feet. Paul gave us a general lay of the land along with a couple places we might find water and then we headed deeper into the wilderness.

Koy and I summited the highest peak in the range that afternoon and studied the terrain. Ten miles later, we set camp under the canopy of a few scrubby aspen trees at 10,400 feet. The ridge offered commanding views of a large basin, and we were able to locate several solid bucks before the sun set, including a stud 6x5 that we named “Creedmore.”

The next morning, we were able to locate several of the bucks from the night before but could not turn up Creedmore. Two bucks began making their way across the sagebrush below, and a quick study revealed four points on each side of a huge velvet covered 30" frame. He made his way another two miles before disappearing into a stringer of aspen trees. I bailed off the ridge, attempting to stalk the wide four. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate him.

We spent the next couple days trying to intercept the bucks as they made their way to the bedding area during the morning hours. The afternoon was spent slowly working through aspen groves, spotting and stalking with limited success. By the fourth day, we made the decision to move camp further down the ridge closer to the migration route the bucks had used the previous couple days.

The morning of day five, we made our way to the bottom of a draw, hoping to intercept the bucks as they made their way to the bedding area. Like clockwork, the wide four appeared, taking a different path 100 yards to the south. I took off running, attempting to get in front of him, but the stars did not align.

By 3:00, the deer were up and moving under the aspen canopy. As we were sneaking through on a well-used game trail, I caught movement 150 yards ahead. There were five bucks in the group, and Creedmore was one of them. The first couple bucks passed by at 42 yards. I looked to my right and confirmed that Koy had an arrow nocked. Fifteen minutes later, Creedmore committed. Koy drew and settled on the buck. At the release of the arrow, he went down immediately and expired within eyesight.

With the final morning upon us, I decided to focus on the wide four. I made my way into the draw, and Koy stayed high, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wide four and possibly guide me towards his position. At first light, a couple deer worked their way towards us and Koy signaled for me to head his way. The first buck passed by at 35 yards, and the second buck followed a similar path. I drew back as his antler tips appeared over the sage. At 42 yards, he stopped broadside and I released the arrow. A few minutes later, one of the bucks took off up the draw alone. We retrieved my arrow and confirmed it was soaked in blood. Within minutes, we recovered my buck. We boned out and packed the meat back to camp just in time to meet Paul who subsequently packed everything back to the trailhead. Koy and I spent the next 11 hours taking turns driving back home to our families in Montana.

I have been hunting southeast Montana for the past 21 years, returning annually to a large block of public land that I call “The Butte.” Given my history in the area, the opportunity to hunt for elk meant a lot to me and I was committed to spending every moment possible on The Butte.

The first window of opportunity presented itself September 19-21 during archery season. I made the drive to the trailhead, strapped into my backpack, and trekked to my spike camp, arriving at 11:30 a.m. That afternoon, I was able to turn up a couple solid bulls and it was clear the rut was kicking in. The morning of September 20th, I worked my way to a glassing area, arriving at first light. The first critter I could make out was an antelope buck on a bench just below me. He was feverishly watching two bucks rut a handful of does on the prairie 600 vertical feet below. I closed the gap to 25 yards while he focused his attention on the buck and does. Moments later, he turned, pausing briefly behind a tree, allowing me to come to full draw. The arrow penetrated both lungs, and he expired within minutes. I stripped the meat, packed everything back to camp, and returned to search for the elk I had located the night before.

Within a couple hours, a bull ripped a bugle and I decided to dive in after him. The bull gathered his cows and headed away from me. Suddenly, another bull emerged from the trees and I found myself in the perfect position as they exchanged bugles. The bull below me provided the best opportunity with favorable wind and great topography, so I closed the gap and threw out a soft cow call. He came up the ridge, stopping broadside at 46 yards. A quick calculation of the time I had left in the day, being seven and a half miles from the truck, and an obligation the following afternoon back in Big Sky brought a little reality to the situation and I ultimately passed.

My next trip was on October 6th. Over a two and a half day stretch, I saw 80 elk with 23 different bulls. On three different occasions, I was able to get within bow range, but a good shot opportunity never materialized.

As the archery season ended, I set dates for the annual rifle elk hunt with my dad. He decided to join me on The Butte and help search for my bull. We left at 4:00 a.m. on November 1st, set camp at 1:00 in the afternoon, and hiked to a glassing spot. Within minutes, we had a group of elk spotted. We put them to bed and headed to camp.

On the third morning, I was able to gather just enough light to confirm a solid 5x6 bull not far from camp. As we crested the next ridge, I saw a cow slip through a small opening followed by a few more elk. As they broke through the timber into a meadow on the other side, antler tips appeared. The spotting scope confirmed he was the wide 6-point I had seen on the final day of archery season. At 750 yards with a 25+ mph wind, I was uncomfortable with the shot, so I quickly gathered my gear and bailed off the ridge to close the gap. I peeked through the saddle and ranged the bull at 356 yards. I adjusted the turret on my scope while setting up for the shot. The bull was a couple steps from disappearing into the timber when he presented a perfect broadside shot. I took full advantage, dropping him in his tracks. Everything came together with my dad, who introduced me to hunting almost 40 years ago, witnessing the entire event. We made our way over to the bull, and I am not sure my feet ever hit the ground. After 21 years, I was able to put my hands on a bull elk from The Butte.

Looking back on the entire season, there is so much to be grateful for: family, health, fitness, drive, determination, quality time in the backcountry, a freezer full of meat, and the opportunity to share the season with great friends and family.

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